Overcast and wet, the day dragged on forever.
We huddled together in our “ladies’ room,” where Averchenko had joined us. As if by unspoken agreement, nobody said anything about our present concerns. We reminisced about our last days in Moscow and about the people with whom we had spent those last days. Not a word about either our present or our future.
How, we wondered, was our lofty protector doing? Was our exalted guardian still living with an awoken heart or was his life once again only a matter of moind?
I remembered how, on the eve of our departure, I had gone to say goodbye to a former baroness and found her stooping to a rather lowly task—cleaning the floor. Lanky and sallow, with the face of a thoroughbred horse, she was squatting down and examining the floorboards with distaste through a turquoise lorgnette. Between two fingers of her other hand she gingerly held a scrap of wet lace, using it to flick water about.
“I’ll mop it up later, when my Valenciennes has dried out.”
We also reminisced about the bread of our last Moscow days. One kind, made out of sawdust, had crumbled like sand; the other kind, made out of clay, had been bitter, greenish and always damp . . .
Averchenko glanced at his watch.
“Well, it’s already five—not long till our evening.”
“I think someone just tapped on the window,” said Olyonushka, on her guard.
It was Gooskin.
“Madame Teffi, Monsieur Averchenko!” he shouted loudly. “You must absolutely come out and stretch your legs a bit. To be in good voice, I swear you must have a clear head before the start of the evening.”
“But it’s raining!”
“Only a little drizzle. You absolutely must come out, I’m telling you.”
“Maybe there’s something he needs to say to us,” I whispered to Averchenko. “You go first and see whether or not he’s on his own. If Robespierre’s there too, I’m not going. I just can’t.”
What I dreaded more than anything was having to shake this man’s hand. I could answer his questions and even meet his eye, but I knew that I couldn’t bring myself to touch him. My aversion to this creature was so intense, so beyond my control that I couldn’t answer for myself. I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t scream or make a scene or do something irreparable, something that would cost me dear, something our whole group would have to pay for. I knew that physical contact with this reptile was more than I could bear.
Averchenko appeared at the window and beckoned me out.
“Don’t go to the right,” our hostess whispered to me in the hall, while pretending to look for my galoshes.
“Let’s keep to the middle of the street,” whispered Gooskin. “We’re just out for a walk, for a breath of fresh air.”
And so we set off, with a measured, easy walk, glancing more and more frequently at the sky. Yes, we were just stretching our legs, getting a breath of fresh air.
“Don’t look at me,” muttered Gooskin. “Look at the rain.”
He looked to either side. He looked behind him. A little calmer now, he said, “I’ve managed to find out a thing or two. The person who runs the show here is a woman, commissar H—” After pronouncing her name, which sounded like the bark of a dog, he continued, “She’s just a young girl, a student, a telephone operator. Her word is the law. And she’s deranged, a mad dog, as the phrase goes. A beast,” he spat out in a tone of horror. “She does as she pleases. She conducts the searches, she sentences, and she shoots. There she sits on her porch, sentencing and shooting. What goes on at night by the embankment—that’s someone else’s doing, that’s not her. She her- self just sits on her porch—and she’s without shame. I can’t even speak about such things in front of a lady, no, I can’t, I would rather speak only to Monsieur Averchenko. He’s a writer, so he’ll be able to put it in some poetic manner. Well, suffice it to say that the simplest Red Army soldier will sometimes go and find a quiet place to answer the call of nature. But she—she just answers the call there and then, with no embarrassment at all. It’s horrible!”
He looked from side to side.
“Let’s walk the other way for a while.”
“Is anything being said about us?” I asked.
“They’re still promising to let us through, but commissar H hasn’t had her say yet. A week ago there was a general, on his way to the south. All his papers were in order. She searched him and found real money—a kerenka—sewn into his trouser stripes. So she says, ‘Don’t waste good bullets on him, just beat him with your rifle butts!’ So they beat him. ‘Still alive?’ she asks. ‘Hm,’ they say, ‘seems like it.’ ‘Douse him with kerosene and put a light to it.’ So they doused him with kerosene and set him on fire. Don’t look at me, look at the rain—we’re just having a breath of fresh air. This morning they searched some industrialist’s wife. She’d brought all kinds of stuff with her. Money. Furs. Diamonds. She was traveling with her steward. Her husband’s in the Ukraine. She was on her way to join him. They took away everything she had. Literally. Left her only the clothes she stood up in. Some old woman gave her her own shawl. It’s still not clear if they’ll let her leave or . . . Heavens! We shouldn’t have come this far! Turn around, quick!”
We had almost reached the railway embankment.
“Don’t look! Don’t look that way!” Gooskin said in a loud whisper. “Quick! Turn around quick! We haven’t seen a thing. Just keep going, keep walking quietly along . . . After all, we’re just out for a walk, stretching our legs. We’ve got a concert tonight, we just need to stretch our legs.” A smile on his pale lips, he was doing his best to sound convincing.
I’d turned around at once and almost not seen anything. I hadn’t even quite understood what I wasn’t meant to be seeing. A figure in a soldier’s greatcoat was bending down, picking up stones and throwing them at a pack of dogs that seemed to be gnawing at something. This was at the foot of the embankment, but some way away. One dog ran off on its own, dragging something along the ground. All this took only a moment…but it seemed to be dragging… probably I imagined it…dragging an arm…yes, some shreds of clothing and a hand, I could see the fingers. Only that’s not possible. A dog can’t gnaw off an arm . . .
I remember a cold clammy sweat on my temples and upper lip, and a wave of nausea that made me want to snarl like an animal.
“Come along now, come along!” said Averchenko, taking me by the arm.
“The hostess did warn me,” I wanted to say, but I couldn’t unclench my teeth. I couldn’t speak.
“We’ll get you some steaming hot tea!” Gooskin shouted. “That’ll sort out the migraine in no time at all. There’s nothing like something nice and cold to sort out a migraine. Ri-ight?”
When we reached the house, he whispered, “Not a word to our actresses, not a word. After all, we can all scream blue murder—but there still won’t be time to put the world to rights. We’ve got to leave in the morning. Ri-ight?”
Gooskin’s “Ri-ight?” was not a question and did not require an answer. It was his style, a rhetorical flourish. Though sometimes it seemed that there were two Gooskins—one would speak and the other, in a surprised tone, would then ask for confirmation.
The house was a picture of peace, with lamp and samovar. The older actress was giving her little dog some milk; Olyonushka was rehearsing a monologue for the performance to come.
What was I to read? What kind of audience would we have? Robespierre had said that they would be “enlightened spirits who had cast off the chains of the ages.” Did this mean they had all done forced labor? They would, moreover, be “true judges and connoisseurs of art.” What sort of art? Averchenko thought that Robespierre was thinking of the music of criminal slang.
But what was I to read?
“You must read poems of tender feeling,” said Olyonushka. “Poetry ennobles.”
“I think I’ll read that little police-station sketch of mine,” said Averchenko. “Not so very ennobling, but it’ll strike more of a chord with the audience.”
Olyonushka disagreed. On tour in the western provinces, she had read my poem about a beggar woman: “Around the country walked Fedosya, around the land the cripple wandered,” and so on (a piece much loved by actors and recited by them ad nauseam).
“And what do you think happened?” Olyonushka went on. “In the interval, this old Tatar comes backstage to see me. He’s quite a simple man, and with tears in his eyes he says, ‘Dear Miss Actress please read about that cripple woman again.’ The poem’s about Christ,”—Olyonushka now sounded more impassioned than ever— “so it’s the last thing a non-Christian should have wanted to listen to, yet he was truly moved.”
“Olyonushka, dear,” I said, “I don’t think your simple old man will be there tonight. Read something about an airplane—or roast mutton.”
Suddenly, from the entrance room, came the sound of Robespierre’s ecstatic voice.
I left the room.
Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea
Translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, Elizabeth Chandler, and Irina Steinberg
2016, New York Review of Books